Sunday, April 29, 2007

The 100th Post!

This is my 100th post! For my post, I will review the recent Arcade Fire CD Neon Bible (2007). When I bought this disc, I was in the mood to try something different. A well intentioned but condescending Barnes & Noble salesman pitched a couple of different bands, most of which sounded pretty good (Muse, The Decemberists and some Gypsy Punk Band). But I decided to check out Arcade Fire, the songs I heard from them were engaging and the recent reviews described the current disc as Bruce Springsteenish. I played the song snippets at the listening station and liked what I heard so I picked it up.

Though I could hear some Springsteen in it (occassional rootsy guitars, glockenspiel sounding instruments, lyrics about cars and the night) I actually heard more of the Cure (low slung bass lines, post punk beat and depressed tone). To me. the more accurate description is that Arcade Fire is the Depeche Mode for the new age. Arcade Fire is full of gloomy guses. And yet these comparisions don't do justice to their original sound, a layered composition filled with strumming guitars, marching band drums, sawing strings and swirling synthesizers topped with quivering vocals. They are a unique sounding bunch.

Neon Bible tackles themes familiar to Depeche Mode fans, in fact it reminded me of that band's album title Faith Love and Devotion. That pretty much sums up this album, as many of the songs relate to questioning faith in religion (the organ drenched"Intervention") and other's faith as well (the Joe Simpson potshot "Antichrist Television Blues"). The album follows almost a concept album theme, starting with a desperate search for identity ("Black Mirror" and "Keep The Car Running"). The search leads to what the Fire perceive as empty promises of salvation ("Intervention" and "Neon Bible") and seeing fault in other's faith ("Antichrist" and "Windowsill"). It ends with an unresolved feeling on the dirge like "My Body Is A Cage".

Neon Bible won't win awards for feel good disc of the year, but the heady mix of inventive arrangements and mope rock is convincing and very listenable. The real classic tune here is "No Cars Go", it plays like Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" on speed. While Neon Bible isn't Born To Run, it's a better piece than the Killer's copy by numbers approach to "When We Were Young". So, if you're in the mood for the 21st century Depeche Mode, check out Arcade Fire!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sooo Inconvenient

This past weekend I watched two films, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Aaron Eckert's Thank You for Smoking (2006). I didn't intend to watch these movies back to back, but they ended up being perfect bookends to each other thematically.

Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth basically states that Global Warming is not a theory, it's real and causing an increasing threat to mankind. Gore makes a strong case, pointing to an increase in natural disasters and dramatic charts that all show an increase in temperature over a span of time. Intercut are bits about what motivates Al to change the world-it all makes for a great election promo except...he's not running for anything.
One of the things Truth unitentionally underscores is the loss of power to uncharismatic politicians. If a candidate is dull and has no personal story to tell, the largely indifferent voting base will not root for that person. That's not to say I'm necessarily an Al Gore fan, but Truth does show an intelligent and motivated politician in the best light possible. But, even when he's talking about the end of the world with fancy computer graphics-he's still boring! As accomplished as Gore is, the one thing we've learned from the last two presidents is that we like guys who party hard. Gore's wife spent the 80's trying to end popular music, so there goes that.

But what was I originally talking about? Oh yeah, the end of all life on Earth. The end of Truth tries to motivate the viewer to make changes instead of disparing but let's face it-if this stuff is true then we're screwed. This doesn't mean the film wasn't inspiring, my wife and I both made some changes to try to conserve a little more energy and the environment. And then we found out you have to pay twice as much money to buy an energy efficient light bulb that can't fit in your lamp and still leaves you in a dark haze once it's plugged in. I know Al said Inconvenient but...dang!

Thank You for Smoking (2006) is a sharp satire about a fictional PR guy for the tobacco industry. Played with savvy by Aaron Eckert, Smoking shows a world where the antiquated vices of American life (smoking, drinking and guns) hire PR firms to spin all information to their side while they callously calculate their daily death tolls. Smoking does take their story a little too far that it loses some plausibility, but overall the movie is an entertaining joy ride of dark humor.

The two movies dovetail (love that word) to show the choice we are given in terms of what's good for ourselves. The real truth is that energy conservation, alternative forms of energy and other green things won't really take off until they are as cheap and effective as energy wasting materials. Or the planet falls apart. Whichever comes first. In the mean time, I'll play a modest part in change but have no intention of giving up the comforts of modern living.

Like the movie says, these are Inconvenient Truths. Well, I'm an American and I don't do Inconvenient. And when the icecaps melt and I have to take a submarine to get to work because my city is underwater, that'll be inconvenient too. I think I better brush up on my swimming!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Shins and Radiohead

A week ago I bought The Shins recent release Wincing The Night Away (2007), the long awaited follow up to Chutes Too Narrow (2003). Chutes won me over with its lo-fi indie approach, pursuasive melodies and bouyant rhythms. At times a grab bag of styles, The Shins have an infectous sense of adventure in their recordings. After the success of Chutes and a big boost from the Garden State soundtrack (2004) there was a sense of anticipation for their next album.

After hearing the new disc, my first reaction to the CD's The Shins in 3D! Fuller, brighter production adds to the feeling of professionalism on Wincing but does reduce some of their initial indie charm. The songwriting is still effective but not quite as memorable as past tunes, though to be fair it took a month for Chutes Too Narrow to really sink in for me. The single "Phantom Limb" is the song that stands out the most for me, a midtempo pop number with shimmering guitars and rumbling drums. There is a slight feeling of self consciousness to the album, as if it is trying a little to hard to sound like The Shins. This is probably due to the amount of hype preceding it, as the recording process was closely tracked by the media every chance it got. Overall, Wincing The Night Away isn't bad and is enjoyable to listen to but not as memorable as their past work.

An older disc that shows the heights modern rock bands can scale is Radiohead's The Bends (1995). The Bends has emotive vocals, clanging guitars and industrialized beats creating rock music that is both noisy and structured. Like most Radiohead songs, the theme seem to be alienation in the modern world whether it's dealing with "My Iron Lung" or "Fake Plastic Trees". Evocative, emotional and artistically daring, The Bends is every bit as good as their classic OK Computer (1997). A rare album that lives up to and surpasses it's hype.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Number 52 and random bits

Continuing my favorite CD countdown at Number 52 is...

The Doors - The Best of the Doors (1985)

The Doors, the band that lives in a singular mystique of druggy poetry and enigmatic charisma thanks to lead singer Jim Morrison. I used to really hate this band. Whenever they would come on MTV in the '80's, my friends and I would complain through the whole song. No specific critique, we would just talk about how they suck and could not see what the big deal was. A bad Oliver Stone movie in the early '90's didn't help, watching a great director begin his slide into self indulgence wasn't much fun either.

It wasn't until I heard my wife's cassette of their Best of that I became interested in the Doors. In the mid '90's, the sign post where most good rock music stopped, I started to listen to more classic rock. In that context, the Doors started to stand out and the Lizard King schtick fronting a stomping blues / psychedelic band sounded good. The epic navel gazing ("Break On Through", "Waiting For The Sun", "Riders On The Storm") the I'm Too Sexy come ons ("Light My Fire", "Touch Me", "Hello I Love You") and drugged detachment ("People Are Strange", "The Crystal Ship") came together to form a magnetic portrait of a guy who is pretty cool when he's high.

And in the 1960's, who wouldn't want to be that guy? Now that I'm used to the Doors, I find his I've-walked-the-earth-and-now-sound-like-a-booming-subwolfer voice backed by a pounding electric organ to be entertaining. And like another 1960's artifact, 2001: a Space Odyssey (1967) he seemed driven to take modern society to a more primal end. While I may never find the depth in his music that rock critics claim to be there (maybe because I've never done drugs) I now enjoy listening to their ominous tone. And it's got a good beat you can dance to!

In other news, Sanjaya has been booted off American Idol! After a dull performance of "Something To Talk About" during country week he went from a top vote getter to last place. While I would never say this guy is incredibly talented, he was entertaining and motivated Simon Cowell to his best critiques this week. Cowell was so enraged after seeing Sanjaya's limp performance that he went on a rampage on every contestant that followed. Even front runner Melinda Doolittle wasn't safe as he carped on her "I'm shocked I'm receiving praise" reactions. I hope Simon continues with this now that Sanjaya's gone, it inspired him to his sharpest criticisms in a while.

And now the Father of the Year award goes to...Alec Baldwin! His venomous, profanity laced phone message for his 12 year old daughter is now all over the internet. Gotta love the bit where he tells his daughter he's going to come to California to "Straighten...You...Out!!!!" Yeah, it takes a real man to threaten your 12 year old daughter. To think all those years Baldwin won accolades for playing jerks was considered acting. He was just being himself!

Baldwin could take a lesson from Jim Morrison and Sanjaya Malakar. Chill out dude.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Blades of Glory

This afternoon I saw Blades of Glory (2007), an ice skating comedy starring Will Farrell and Jon Heder. Two skaters of opposing styles fight and become banned from the sport until they find a loophole that allows them to a pair! Will Farrell tends to be hit or miss, his style is a go-for-the-throat mix of cartoon buffoon and smarmy egomaniac. When it works, such as his performance as Frank "the Tank" in Old School (2003) , it's laugh out loud funny. When it doesn't, such as in Anchorman (2005), it's annoyingly desperate. I'm happy to say Farrell's performance as sex addicted rebel skater Chazz Michael Michaels falls in the former. His take on figure skating as a preening macho sex god with long black hair is really good. And Farrell's found a good foil in Jon Heder as Jimmy, the Dorthy Hammil of male figure skating. Heder retains some of the cluelessness of Napoleon Dynamite in his performance as the over sheltered skating prodigy.

The two have good comedic chemestry, Farrell's barrelling energetic approach versus Heder's semi ironic caricaturization (is that a word? it is now!) match the fire and ice relationship of the characters. Blades of Glory does an excellent job of poking holes in the skating establishment, mocking the overblown theatrics of the media hype and skating routines themselves. These skaters showboat while shooting fire or releasing live doves while on the ice. The best part for me was the spot on copies of the skater profiles, with the whiplash floating camera moves and quick cuts while a sports announcer narrates the athelete's life stories with bad puns and heavy drama.

Watching the pairs teams stretch their sexuality to the limit provides much of the humor in the form of two straight skaters holding each other in male/female positions and a brother / sister team that live in their own world and are hot for each other. The brother/sister team are formidable villians played with spoiled warped evil flair by Will Arnett and Saturday Night Live's Amy Poeler. Blades also benefits from strong support by the pro skater community as Scott Hamilton, Nancy Kerrigan, Brian Boitano and others all make guest appearances.

Like most comedies, the funniest bits are in the commercials and it runs out of steam about half way through. Numerous digital effects are used to paste the actor's faces on the bodies of their body doubles/skaters but it is a forgiveable nuisance. The only true misstep in the film is an on screen decapitation that is supposed to be funny but actually comes across as horrific. Still, there are plenty of chuckles throughout the movie and a great chase scene that starts on ice but proceeds to go over streets, floors and escalators while wearing ice skates throughout.

Blades of Glory is a movie that delivers exactly on what it promises. Everything you see in the commercials it is, nothing more and nothing less. I had a good time but don't care if I see it again, all I can say is nice doing business with you Blades of Glory!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shaw Blades, The Lake House and AI

Shaw. Blades. To an 80's rock fan, these names signify not just rock, but RAWK! Tommy Shaw of Styx, Jack Blades of Night Ranger and both formerly of Damn Yankees-they are two legends of Arena Rock. In Damn Yankees, their songwriting and harmony vocals were the perfect foil for Ted Nugent's bombastic guitarwork. Outside of Damn Yankees, their strong sense of harmony still shines through.

On Influence (2007) the dynamic duo deliver a covers album in a market flooded with them. Like most covers albums, the songs focus on a specific timeperiod where the artists taste in music developed. In this case, the time is the late 60's and early 70's. A mix of folk rock (Simon & Garfunkel, Mamas and Papas), prog rock (Yes, ELP) and soft rock (Seals & Crofts, Orleans) fill out the song choices. All of the songs are tastefully produced with a focus on the intertwining vocals between the jaunty Jack Blades and the high voiced Tommy Shaw.

The highlight of the album is the opening track "Summer Breeze". Shaw / Blades play the song fairly straightforward but the passion for the song makes it stand out. A spot on cover of Yes' "Your Move" is another highlight with Tommy Shaw almost rivaling Jon Andersons' vocal range. They stay true to most of the song arrangments except for on Paul Simon's "I Am A Rock". "Rock" has a modern rock arrangement remiscent of the Foo Fighters (the similarity is so noticeable they comment on it in the liner notes).

Is Influence an outstanding covers album or the best of it's kind? No, not really. But the intentions seem honest in wanting to pay tribute to their favorite tracks and as a fan of both of them it's great to hear. Influence isn't for everyone, but if you're in the mood for some mild rockin with a bit of nostalgia then it should hit the spot.

I watched the last half of The Lake House (2006) starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as lonely rich people who are separated by two years but send letters through a magic mailbox. Lake House is one of those movies that gives Chick Flicks a bad name, the story is extremely flawed and let's face it: in movie time, two years is not an unsurmountable gap for two people to overcome. The bomb in Speed was a better romantic device than this mailbox. All these two people had to do is Google each other in either time period and knock on the other's door to meet. If you would like to see a good movie of this type, check out Somewhere In Time (1982) with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

The latest American Idol update, I was wrong again as Sanjaya was not booted off this week. I thought for sure his number was up when he turned in a decent performance that wasn't a joke. But Haley Scarnato's hot legs couldn't outrun her manic, unfocused performances and America sent her home. Too bad, she was the only good looking person in the whole group and I'll miss my wife's imitation of Scarnato's sudden spastic twitching in the middle of her "sexy" sauntering. So far I'm only 1 for 5 in predictions for AI, I will have to try harder next year!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Number 53

I just picked up a CD yesterday, but haven't had the chance to listen to it more than once so I'll add to my favorite CD list instead. At Number 53 is...

Bonnie Raitt - Nick of Time (1989)

Like many people, I had not heard of Bonnie Raitt until the 1990 Grammy Awards when she came out of nowhere to win multiple awards. Raitt's years of struggling under the radar suddenly paid off as she became an overnight sensation. And due to her long wait she was presented to the public fully formed, a whiskey voiced red head with a love for blues and a mean slide guitar. Raitt is still a presence on the music scene and it is all due to this disc.

Nick of Time shines due to Raitt's world worn performance and Don Was' warm, meaty production. The title song was a deserved adult contemporary hit written by Raitt about aging. Nick of Time plays the field stylistically, alternating between slinky blues / reggae ("Love Letter", "Have a Heart"), acoustic balladry ("Nobody's Girl", "I Ain't Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again") and luminously soft pop ("Cry On My Shoulder, "Too Soon To Tell"). All of this sets up the bar band blues displayed on "I Will Not Be Denied" and "Real Man". But the highlight is her version of John Hiatt's "Thing Called Love", a sh*tkicking romp that pushes Raitt's voice and guitar to its limit.

Producer Don Was became an indemand producer after Nick of Time and rightfully so. Was stamps the album with thick grooves, big drums, glowing keyboards and crisp guitars. Also, like American Idol Don Was emphasizes song choice with a selection of strong songs that highlight Raitt's voice. The Raitt / Was partnership would continue for two more excellent CD's, Luck of the Draw (1991) and Longing in their Hearts (1993) making a trilogy of very listenable blues pop rock.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Departed, Wrestlemania 23 and AI

Time to end another gap in posts, though this will be brief as it is late at night. I finally saw the Academy Award winning best picture of 2006 The Departed. Martin Scorsese goes gangsta again but instead of testosterone driven mafia lugs in New York he depicts testosterone driven mafia lugs in Boston. All of the Scorsese touches are there (the power of ruthless men, the guy on the inside trying to get out of the mob, the tasteful classic rock soundtrack) and strong performances by all actors make this an engaging film. Matt Damon in particular shines while demonstrating his ability to play villians against his all American looks (Damon's almost as good here as he was in The Talented Mr Ripley). Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson chews up the usual amount of scenery as a mob boss. But the best actor in the movie: Cell phones. This movie had me seriously wondering if FBI / Police training now includes cells, because it was used by just about everyone on screen. Not just talking, but texting with one hand while not even looking at the phone. I can't even figure out if there is a mute button on mine.

There's nothing here that Scorsese hasn't done better elsewhere (the rampant racism is remiscent of Gangs of New York, Leo Decaprio's character is slightly Ray Liottaish) but the film maintains a high level of quality in it's storytelling and ability to raise tension. Is The Departed the best Scorsese film ever? No, but it is a strong film worth your time.

Last weekend I saw the best Wrestlemania I've seen in Wrestlemania 23. Highlights including an exciting Money in the Bank match where many wrestlers crashed and burned off ladders. The title matches were expertly done, the Undertaker and Batista started theirs as a regular match and built up to powerslams on the announce table. John Cena wisely let the veteran Shawn Michaels carry the match in their contest. Best of all, they hit all the right spots during the Donald Trump / Vince McMahon match. The sight of the Donald tackling and pummeling Vince McMahon was priceless. The shaving of McMahon was quite a sight too.

Another American Idol update, I finally got one right! I predicted Gina Clocksen would be voted off for lack of identity this week and that pretty much happened. Clocksen gave strong performances two weeks in a row and was shown the door for her trouble. ...And the Malakar Express rolls on, even a wretched version of "Cheek to Cheek" couldnt' stop him. Not even dent him, Sanjaya avoided the bottom three all together.